A political party is an ongoing coalition of interests joined together in an effort to get its candidates for public office elected under common label. Political parties are an indispensable component of democratic government. By offering voters a choice between policies and leaders, parties give them a chance to influence the direction of government. When the United States was founded, the formation of parties was also the first step toward the building of its democracy.
Political parties serve to link the public with its elected leaders. In the United States, this linkage is provided by the two-party system. Only the Republican and Democratic parties have any chance of winning control of government. The fact that the United States has only two major parties is explained by several factors: an electoral system characterized by single-member districts that makes it difficult for third parties to compete for power; each party’s willingness to accept differing political views; and a political culture that stresses compromise and negotiation rather than ideological rigidity.
When the Constitution was written, no political parties existed in the United States. Before long, however, the nation’s leaders had begun to divide into factions, or groups with differing views. These factions soon gave rise to the nation’s first political parties. By the early 1800s, a political system based on two major parties was beginning to emerge.
Over the years, the two parties have evolved and changed, and so have their bases of support. For example, the Democrats were once the strongest party in the South. Today the Republicans generally enjoy more support among southern voters.
While all kinds of Americans support either party, a Republican is more likely to be white, male, and relatively affluent. A Democrat is more likely to be a member of a minority group, female, and less affluent. In general, Republicans hold more conservative views, and Democrats more liberal views, on the issues that follow.
In general, Democrats support a strong federal government and look to it to solve a wide variety of problems. Most Republicans favor limiting the size of the national government and giving more power to the states to solve problems at a local level.
Republicans favor broad-based tax cuts to encourage economic growth and to allow people to keep what they earn. Although Democrats favor tax cuts for the poor, they are more willing to raise taxes for affluent Americans in order to support programs that they see as beneficial to society.
Democrats generally support government regulation of business as a way to protect consumers, workers, or the environment. Most Republicans oppose what they see as excessive business regulation by the government.
Republicans tend to favor prayer in public schools, while opposing abortion and gun control laws. Democrats are more likely to support abortion rights and gun control laws, while opposing school prayer.
Most Democrats favor regular increases in the minimum wage to support poor families. Republicans tend to oppose minimum wage laws as unnecessary economic regulation.
While these generalities hold for the two political parties, individual Democrats or Republicans may not share the same views on every issue. Nevertheless, for most Americans, identifying with one party or the other provides a useful way to make sense of the candidates at election time. In effect, party labels tell voters what the candidates stand for and help them make choices when they vote.
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